The Hello Girls
World War I
In order to release men for the front lines, the Army employed over four hundred women telephone operators to serve overseas. These women, who retained their civilian status, became members of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit 25 They are perhaps better known as the "Hello Girls." In order to operate switchboards in France and England, they needed to be fluent in both French and English. Moreover, because the Army contained few French-speaking operators, these women no doubt made inter-Allied communications proceed much more smoothly.
Beginning in November 1917, the Signal Corps recruited women from the commercial telephone companies. Over 7,000 women applied and 450 were selected. The women were recruited from the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). The women received military and Signal Corps training. They trained in basic military radio procedures at Camp Franklin Maryland (now Fort Meade). After training, the women purchased their Army regulation uniform complete with "U.S." crests, Signal Corps crests, and "dog tags." Arm patches designating positions were issued. In the spring of 1918, the first thirty-three operators were on their way to Europe. They were issued gas masks and steel helmets. The operators voices were a welcome sound to the men who used the Signal Corps telephone system.
After that training period, the first detachment of women, in the charge of chief operator Grace Banker, departed from New York City early in March 1918. Soon members of the unit were operating telephone exchanges of the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris, Chaumont, and seventy-five other cities and towns in France as well as in London, Southampton, and Winchester, England.
After the Armistice, and upon their return to the United States, the operators realized all Army regulations were worded in the "male" gender, so the women were denied veterans status. They were considered civilians working for the Army. This perplexed the women because they were required to wear regulation uniforms, they were sworn into service and had to follow all Army regulations. The Chief Telephone Operator, Grace Banker, even received the Distinguished Service Medal from Congress. For years legislation had been introduced into Congress but the bills were always buried in committee. It took one of the operators, Mearle Eagan Anderson, over fifty years of persistence to secure legislation to award the operators veteran’s status. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the bill giving the women their deserved recognition. The "Hello Girl" uniform on display was owned by Louise Ruffe, a Signal Corps telephone operator.
Find out more in "Getting the Message Through" at http://www.history.army.mil/books/30-17/Front.htm#toc